A Powerful Religious Left is Emerging, But They’ll Fail Without Secular Support

In a front page story appearing in today’s New York Times, Laurie Goodstein writes about the Religious Left and their emergence in liberal circles. After ceding a lot of ground to conservative Christians over the past few decades, and seeing the way their faith has been used to hurt people who are already oppressed, they’re finally fighting back. Sure, they’ve been working for these causes the entire time, but in the age of Donald Trump, their message is finally resonating beyond their typical bubbles.

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Frustrated by Christian conservatives’ focus on reversing liberal successes in legalizing abortion and same-sex marriage, those on the religious left want to turn instead to what they see as truly fundamental biblical imperatives — caring for the poor, welcoming strangers and protecting the earth — and maybe even change some minds about what it means to be a believer.

These are people who support marriage equality, transgender rights, women’s access to abortion, health care for everyone, addressing climate change, pushing for gun safety measures, etc. They are natural allies for so many atheists who support church/state separation and evidence-based policies, even if their inspiration is religious in nature.

Whether they’ll be successful at the national level remains to be seen, but they’re already making progress. Rev. William J. Barber II, who leads the “Moral Monday” movement, was a driving force in the defeat of North Carolina’s anti-LGBT Governor Pat McCrory in last year’s election.

There’s bound to be a lot of discussion and debate over whether it makes sense to cite the Bible for progressive causes. I’m sure some readers are already complaining about how the Bible is anti-science, anti-gay, anti-women, etc. and it’s disingenuous to ignore those verses, much less claim the exact opposite. The Religious Left, critics might say, are doing the right things for the wrong reasons.

But theological honesty is a separate debate. If the Religious Left win elections and puts more Democrats in office, it’s better on the policy front for all of us who support progressive causes, even if they’re using dubious justifications along the way. Let’s win races. Then we can argue about how much of a “good book” the Bible really is.

Better yet, do both at the same time. But as the saying goes, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Atheists and religious progressives have far more in common than either group does with the Christian Right.

I did want to bring up one passage that bothered me. Rev. Jim Wallis, a longtime Religious Left leader, said this about how Democrats have failed in their outreach to his tribe.

“The fact that one party has strategically used and abused religion, while the other has had a habitually allergic and negative response to religion per se, puts our side in a more difficult position in regard to political influence,” said the Rev. Jim Wallis, the evangelical social justice advocate who founded the Sojourners community and magazine in 1971.

“Most progressive religious leaders I talk to, almost all of them, feel dissed by the left,” he said. “The left is really controlled by a lot of secular fundamentalists.”

What. The. Hell.

If the left is “controlled by a lot of secular fundamentalists,” it’s news to me since the Democratic Party is full of people who parade their faith. If Democrats are allergic to religion, they must get a full-blown viral outbreak when it comes to atheism.

Our last President was a man who referenced his Christianity in pretty much every major speech. Our nominee in 2016 was a woman who once taught Sunday school and whose running mate was a former missionary. If those are secular fundamentalists, they’re doing it wrong. (Remember: We have zero members of Congress right now who are openly atheist.)

Furthermore, that phrase “secular fundamentalists” is just plain offensive, as if atheists are demanding that the government force people not to believe in God. There’s a difference between calling for religious neutrality from Washington and changing the Pledge of Allegiance so it says we’re “one nation, under no God.”

A “secular fundamentalist” is really just someone who challenges religious beliefs and promotion of God by the government. That’s it. A religious fundamentalist, on the other hand, has very different intentions.

And this comment by Wallis illustrates why the Religious Left is going to have a hard time moving forward. With a quarter of the country no longer affiliated with any organized religion, the Religious Left will succeed only if they reach out to people like us. It’s not enough that liberal Christians join forces with Muslims and Jews and Hindus. They need atheists and the broader community of Nones to support their agenda.

But the Democratic Party — and the current Religious Left — do an awful job at that outreach. They’re too afraid of getting atheist cooties that they avoid the label (even if it applies to them) and rarely want to be seen with us in public. It’s like they think people won’t vote for them if they’re seen in our company, even if we’re not asking them to legislate our beliefs. I understand where that thinking is coming from, but it’s rapidly changing, especially with younger voters.

The Republican Party doesn’t have this concern. They openly embrace the Religious Right, even when it means sharing a bed with bigots. They don’t care who they alienate.

The Democrats, by avoiding atheists and never truly engaging the Religious Left, are seen as disingenuous. They would do so much better, I think, if they were honest about their religious beliefs, admitted when they didn’t believe in a Higher Power, and called for separation of church and state no matter what their personal beliefs are. They don’t need to treat faith as a divisive issue, and they don’t need to alienate Nones by acting like Republicans when it comes to religion.

Atheists aren’t monolithic when it comes to politics, but most of us share progressive values. Right now, the one party that can achieve those goals ignores us. And the coalition of religious groups working to change that doesn’t know how to include us.

They need us for the numbers, and we need them for the organization.

And if we don’t come together, the forces that helped put Trump in office will retain control of Congress in 2018 and do it all over again in 2020.

There are more important issues at stake than the never-ending debates over God’s existence and the wisdom of holy books. If religion can be used as a force for good, then we need to get behind that. Even if we argue along the way that the foundation of their movement is nothing but a myth.

(Image via Shutterstock)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.